Composer John Adams' controversial "The Death of Klinghoffer" opened Monday night at the Metropolitan Opera to a chorus of protests, while inside the Lincoln Center theater, the show went on.
The opera, inspired by the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro and the killing of disabled Jewish American Leon Klinghoffer by members of the Palestinian Liberation Front, drew a number of protesters who attempted to disrupt the production by calling out slogans during the performance, but loud applause from the audience drowned out the voices, as it did scattered boos at the end of the first act.
FOR THE RECORD
Oct. 21, 1:50 p.m.: This article previous said "The Death of Klinghoffer" was based on the hijacking of the Achille Lauro cruise ship by members of the Palestinian Liberation Organization. The hijackers identified themselves as members of the Palestine Liberation Front.
Outside, protesters had gathered across from the Met's uptown Manhattan location about three hours before curtain time. Demonstrators held signs and chanted "Shame on Gelb" — a reference to Met general manager Peter Gelb — while about two dozen speakers, including former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani and U.S. Reps. Peter King (R-N.Y.), Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.) and Eliot Engel (D-N.Y.), addressed the crowd.
Calling it "factually inaccurate and extraordinarily damaging," Giuliani derided the Met for leaving "the impression that there was sympathetic justification for the killing of Leon Klinghoffer. And that's a sin."
The Met released a statement Monday that said the opera "deals with a difficult subject: the horrific murder of an innocent man during an act of terrorism committed in 1985. However, the fact that 'Klinghoffer' grapples with the complexities of an unconscionable real-life act of violence does not mean it should not be performed."
The events Monday to a head a months-long controversy on a scale that the Met hasn't seen in years.
There was no early official word on the size of the protest. Unofficial estimates put the crowd outside at 500 to 1,500 people. Scores of police officers were deployed and barricades ringed the pavilion, but unrest was largely limited to verbal volleys between patrons and a few breakaway protesters closer to the opera house.
Police were also stationed inside the theater, but flashlight-bearing ushers mobilized to quiet the disturbances. The most notable disruption came when one audience member shouted, "The death of Klinghoffer will never be forgiven" repeatedly during the first act. There were no disruptions in the second act.
"The Death of Klinghoffer" has been polarizing since its premiere in Brussels in 1991, after it was commissioned by a consortium of arts groups including the Los Angeles Opera. With a libretto by Alice Goodman, the piece stirred controversy over what critics say is its humanization of the terrorists who murdered Klinghoffer.
The Boston Symphony Orchestra canceled its performance of parts of the opera shortly after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, and a production at Lincoln Center's Juilliard School brought a backlash in 2009. But a staging at Long Beach Opera in March prompted little outcry, as did a mounting several years ago by the English National Opera, which also helped produce the Met show. Long Beach Opera artistic and general director Andreas Mitisek said Monday that post-performance discussions encouraged audience dialogue.
"Within the Jewish community, we had people who said that they didn't know what the fuss was about, and others who said they were offended," Mitisek said. "I think it's important to hear both sides — why are you offended [or] why do you think it's balanced. I think it's the best thing that the arts can do — to make people talk about things."
But protesters Monday said the Met, with its high-profile position on the world opera stage, was potentially contributing to rising anti-Semitism in other parts of the world by staging the production. Met officials had previously met with the Anti-Defamation League (the group was not part of the protests Monday) and dropped plans to simulcast "The Death of Klinghoffer" to movie theaters around the world; Gelb cited fears of increased anti-Semitism in places such as Europe as a factor in that decision.
On Monday, former U.S. Atty. Gen. Michael Mukasey took up that topic from the protest podium.
"No one thinks America is in imminent danger of becoming 1930s Germany," he said. "But we don't want to be modern-day France either."
Added Maloney: "The death of Klinghoffer is not art. It's terrorist propaganda masquerading as art," she said equating it to an opera that showed "human" sides of Ted Bundy or George Zimmermann and sounding a similar note to other speakers by saying that "Klinghoffer" was tantamount to an opera about ISIS.
Many of the speakers at the protest, organized by Jewish groups such as the Zionist Assn. of America and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, wore yellow stars, an appropriation of the mark Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, and called for future boycotts of the Met. Dozens of volunteers also sat in wheelchairs as an homage to Klinghoffer's memory. Their actions created a charged spectacle in front of Lincoln Center, which most evenings is filled mainly with the genteel sight of well-heeled theatergoers and tourists.
The Met responded by saying protesters misunderstood the intent and spirit of the show.
"The rumors and inaccuracies about the opera and its presentation at the Met are part of a campaign to have it suppressed," its statement said. "'Klinghoffer' is neither anti-Semitic nor does it glorify terrorism. The Met will not bow to this pressure."
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio also defended the right of the Met to stage "Klinghoffer" and criticized Giuliani for advocating censorship.
In front of the opera house before the show, patrons said they didn't believe Adams' work was designed to offend.
"People say it does this or that. But did they see it?" said Dale Ducko, a Broadway stage manager who said he was regular at the Met. "I look at the movie 'United 93' and how it showed a plane full of lost souls — everybody is a lost soul — and I expect this will do the same."
Protesters, however, said they remained baffled by the Met's decision.
"People were supposed to stage it after September 11 but they canceled it because it was an open wound," said Gideon Kaminer, 14, a student at a nearby Jewish school who had come to the protest on his own. "What I don't think the Met understands is that this will always be an open wound."